Monday, August 17, 2009


Everything I was ever taught as a kid about world population was wrong!

Why was that? Well, I grew up in the 60's and 70's and we'd just come off the greatest increase in world population in history. We know it, in this country, as the Baby Boom (1946-1964). It was natural that people would assume that those trends would continue and that our world population would grow exponentially resulting in overpopulation, the loss of precious resources, the ruin of the environment, wars, and more.

Those pundits got it wrong.

Why? Because since the 70’s birthrates have been falling dramatically, all over the world, and this will have profound consequences for everyone, in our lifetime. That's why I'd like to discuss some basics on world population and birthrates, some reasons for falling birthrates, and, most importantly, some consequences of falling birthrates.

3 Basics:

Basic #1: Overview: The world's population has, more or less, been growing continuously since the 1400's and the current population is approximately 6.8 billion people.

Basic #2: Birthrate: In this discussion I will use statistics about the birthrate per woman. So, if I say a country has a birthrate of 3, this means that in that country the average woman has 3 children over her lifetime.

Most demographers consider 2.1 to be the birthrate that allows a population to remain stable. Obviously, if 2 parents have 2 children, they replace themselves. However, you need the .1 more children, average, in order to allow for those children that do not survive to adulthood. 2.1 is an important level. If a country continues to have a birthrate above 2.1 it’s society and its influence will grow. If a country continues to average below 2.1 its soceity and influence will slowly disappear.

Basic #3: Examples: Let’s examine some examples of current birthrates. (Statistics from the 2006 revised United Nations Population Prospects report)

India: (Historically 6-8. Currently . . .) 2.81
USA: 2.05 (and is the only Highly Developed Nation to be near replacement).
United Kingdom: 1.6
Japan: 1.27
World average: 2.55 (and dropping).

So, in general, poorer and less developed countries (e.g Africa, Middle East, Asia) are higher than replacement. Richer and more developed countries (Western Europe, Japan) are below replacement.

The most conservative estimates are that the world population will grow to 8-9 billion people and then fall rapidly.

Why are birthrates falling all over the world? Let’s look at 3 reasons for falling birthrates. (Can you guess?)

3 reasons for falling birthrates:

According to Ben Wattenberg, in his book Fewer, there are a number of reasons for the falling birthrates. I’d like to share 3 of the most important.

Reason #1: Urbanization: According to the Worldwatch Institute’s “State of the World” report, as of 2008 it is estimated that half the world's population lives in cities (especially in poorer countries). On farms, children are an asset. In a city, they are a liability.

Reason #2: Women’s rights: As women in a country are better educated and in the work force they tend to have less children during their lifetime.

Reason #3: Contraception & Abortion: A wider availability of contraception and abortion reduce the number of births.

There are more reasons than this but I think these are the most significant. Let’s finally look at some consequences of a falling birthrate.

3 consequences of falling birthrates:

Consequence #1: Upside down societies: In countries with falling birth rates, a few young people will end up having to take care of a lot of old people. This is illustrated in our own country by the problems with Social Security. It’s much worse in other societies.

Consequence #2: Changing cultures: Can anyone guess what the #1 boy's name in England was last year? Michael? John? William? Nigel? Colin? Andrew? Harry? No, the #1 name for boys in England was Mohamed! With a shrinking native population many European countries are turning to immigration to maintain their work forces. Much of that is coming from the Muslim world. There are parts of London that practice Sharia Law. It is not inconceivable that some countries in Europe will be Islamic Republics in our lifetime. The cultures with high birth rates remain. The ones with low birth rates eventually disappear.

Consequence #3: Economic turmoil: If you ran a business, how would you like the idea of a rapidly shrinking population? The world population has been growing for over 600 years and so we don’t really know what will happen with a falling population. It’s happened at a micro level in certain areas but not a macro level. Imagine what a rapidly falling population would do to schools, housing, transportation, or the food industry. Perhaps over time things will naturally adjust but in the short run there will be economic turmoil.


As I have hinted, we are going down a road we have not travelled before and no one quite knows what will happen to our world. I am comforted that America seems to be holding steady. That's important to maintain our society and our way of life. I am sure that many of would say that our families are the most important thing in the world to us personally. Well, it turns out they’re important to the world too. Keep up the good work.

1 comment:

lauriemcfarland said...

The McFarlands are doing our part. That's why we had #3. :)